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The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills explores how a private trouble can become a public issue, when viewed on a larger scale. He discusses how the two are inexorably linked, and argues that these public issues are motivated and created by those undergoing the personal troubles. For nearly every trouble that an individual faces, there is a corresponding public issue. They influence our everyday lives, be it employment, beauty standards, or mental health; they plague the individual, but society is far from blameless. Mills’ work offers precious insight into the human condition, and gives one a sense of understanding about the problems that we face.
Mills first released The Sociological Imagination in 1959, and since then it has revolutionized the field of sociology. The sociological imagination is a concept that helps to show the link between personal troubles, and the issues of society. Furthermore, it goes on to explain how any man “can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, ” and through this lens one can gain insight into their actions by understanding their place in history. It grants clarity, and helps to take away some of the fear of the unknown, as it leads to a greater understanding. By looking into the past the sociological imagination also allows sociologists to gain a better understanding of history. It makes one aware that the way that people live and think now is vastly different than they did previously. It can be difficult to understand the plights of those before, but with context it is made easier. Mills later goes on to discuss the individual relationship with society. “By the fact of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of1its history. ” Just as the individual is shaped by societal pressures, so to is society formed by the actions and thoughts of the individual; neither can exist without the other, and while understanding one’s place in history allows them to gain better insight into their own life, it also allows them to shape the future.
Mills also discussed personal troubles as opposed to public issues. He argued that personal troubles occurred on the individual level, and were limited by the scope of one’s biography. For instance, if a man is unemployed others might be inclined to look down upon him, and blame his character for his lack of employment, whereas should unemployment occur on a greater scale, and a high percentage of the population is out of work, it is impossible to put the onus on the individual, instead one would look at society for the cause of this issue. When considering something as a public issue, the factors that one considers changes completely. One is forced to look at trends instead of an individual’s circumstances. Perhaps the cause of such rampant unemployment could be blamed on the economy, oversaturated markets, or a variety of different factors. When considering a social issue, one is forced to take into account the social, cultural, political, hierarchical, historical, and economic factors that may have influenced the situation. Mental health is a public and private issue, and one that is personal to me. Mental health has been an interesting subject that was not even acknowledged in society for a very long time. It is impossible for one who has never experienced it before to truly understand what someone is going through, however they are still able to empathize. In media the phrase ‘mental illness’ is stigmatized; it brings to mind images of someone suffering from hallucinations locked inside a padded white room. Despite the fact that most mental illnesses are not visible, people are still uncomfortable with talking about it, as if to mention something that you have little control over makes you a social pariah. Many people with a mental illness choose to self-medicate, and can develop substance abuse problems.
Thankfully, I never got that far, but many are not nearly as lucky as me. In my situation it was more of a slow and insidious killer. I had many people in my life who suffered from depression or anxiety, and when I saw them I saw someone with severe problems, who needed help. To me, in comparison to them my problems were nothing, and I should just suck it up and move on with it, as why did I deserve to get help when I was not in the state that those close to me were? By neglecting my problems I had hoped they would go away, but instead they got much worse. Originally, I figured that even though I fit the symptoms, it was just my mind trying to trick myself into feeling special, and I had learned not to trust myself. I believed that everyone would fit the checklist if they made enough logical excuses, and that the results were false, so I ignored them and they moved on. For a while I truly did believe I was getting better, but instead what was happening was to me everything else was getting in worse, and comparatively I was not doing that poorly. The symptoms increased exponentially, and I found myself becoming apathetic towards the world; I no longer took pleasure in my usual activities, and the future held nothing for me. Every day I woke I would simply count down the minutes until I could go back to sleep again, and shut myself off from the world. As I would wake, I would feel a sense of helplessness, as if I had no control over my life, and I was simply searching for a reason to get up. Eventually it got so bad that I would lie awake in bed every night hoping for a plausible enough excuse, so that I would not have to get up again. Despite all these clear signs of an issue, I stayed faithful in my ability to overcome it, and just attempted to run out the clock. Eventually however, I was forced to confront my problems, and I finally forced myself to talk to a professional. Through extensive therapy I was able to improve, and manage my symptoms. While I had the privilege of being able to go to a therapist, not all are so lucky.
We live in an era where mental health is no longer seen as a personal failing. Previously if one had a mental health issue they were told to snap out of it, and received no further aid. Many veterans returning home from war suffered from PTSD, but no one was willing to acknowledge that it was a real thing, and society was not equipped to deal with it. PTSD was not formally recognized until it was added to the DSM in 1980, and those affected were able to be successfully diagnosed. This is a public issue because society was the one sending them off to war, and refusing to help them. Society was telling people that the issues they were facing were not real, and their denial magnified the problem; those who suffered felt like they were alone, and shut off from the rest of their community as they were forced to suffer in silence. Mental health is also a private issue, as it can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, or by individual circumstances affecting one’s life, although these circumstances may be caused by societal forces, which would contribute to making it both a public and private issue. Recently, social media has also contributed to the public issue, as a sense of interconnectedness can make those who choose not to participate feel increasingly isolated. In addition, people selective choose their posts to highlight the best parts of their lives, while never including their failures. It can send the message that everyone is having a great life, except for the person reading the post.
The Sociological Imagination teaches both a magnificent and terrible lesson, as it offers greater insight into the human condition. It shows that an individual has great influence over society. Conversely, it is a terrible lesson, as it reveals how the limits of human nature is frighteningly broad. In The Sociological Imagination Mills explores the nature of the relationship between private issues, and public troubles. The insight it grants into one’s lives is both a great and terrible lesson. It demonstrates how for every private issue that exists, there is a public issue that may be to blame, be it mental health, fashion, or unemployment, Mills allows one to gain a greater insight into their lives, as they acknowledge their place in history.
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